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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 November 2007, 17:09 GMT
Sackur's world
stephn sackur in damascus
Filming the introduction in Damascus

Ahead of crucial Middle East Peace talks in Annapolis, USA, Stephen Sackur and the HARDtalk team headed out to Damascus for interviews with the political leader of Hamas in exile, Khaled Meshaal and Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister. Here, Stephen gives an account of his trip and his reflections on returning to a country he used to report from.

Many years before I eased my lanky frame into the Hardtalk hot seat I was the BBC's Middle East Correspondent. And that meant regular trips to Damascus to report on political developments in President Hafez al Assad's Syria.

In truth there were precious few 'developments'. Assad's regime was repressive and obsessive. The President's portrait, with the distinctive broad forehead and somewhat mousy moustache, glowered down from public buildings and billboards across the land. The only issue which Syrian officials wanted to discuss with the BBC was the return of the Golan Heights, the swathe of territory conquered by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 and subsequently occupied by thousands of Israeli settlers.

I was reminded of the frustrations and limitations of my previous visits to Syria when I recently landed in Damascus on assignment for 'HARDtalk'. A familiar listlessness hung over the immigration hall. The uniformed soldiers manning the desks managed to project the same combination of indifference and mild contempt which their predecessors had perfected some fourteen years before.

Still the eyes of an Assad looked down on proceedings though now it's the younger, narrower face of Bashar, Hafez's son and successor looming over the baggage claim.

The only issue which Syrian officials wanted to discuss with the BBC was the return of the Golan Heights

Damascus is fringed by arid grey-brown hills. Pollution and dust often combine to cloak it in a dull haze.

Driving through neighbourhoods dominated by cheap, boxy concrete housing - surviving examples of the Soviet architectural aesthetic - I began to wonder if I would find any signs of change at all.

The office of Faisal Miqdad, Syria's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs was not the place to look. While waiting to interview Mr Miqdad I took a quick look around.

In one corner was a picture of Syria's former UN Ambassador being received by President Bashar. Rarely have I seen a photograph so lacking in human warmth and so frank in its depiction of the intimidating relationship between political master and servant.

But the picture at the other end of the wall was even more telling. Here was a 'team photo' of all the ambassadors at the United Nations taken before Mr Miqdad's return to Damascus. Nothing remarkable about it, except for a strange black blob in the middle.

It took me a moment to work it out somebody had gone to the trouble of gluing a piece of black cardboard over the face of the Israeli ambassador.

stephen sackur talking to Khaled Meshaal
Stephen Sackur and Khaled Meshaal

Sure enough my encounter with Mr Miqdad yielded few surprises. Syria would only participate in the forthcoming Annapolis Middle East peace talks if the return of the Golan Heights was on the agenda, he insisted.

On the broader question of whether Syria was ready to consider a strategic shift away from alliance with Iran and support for the Islamist movements Hamas and Hizballah, he suggested that the strategic shift had to come from Israel and the United States.

All of which indicates that my other Hardtalk interviewee in Damascus will retain his status as an honoured guest for some time to come.

Khaled Meshaal, the exiled political leader of Hamas has been living in the Syrian capital since he was forced out of Jordan eight years ago. I met him in a nondescript suburban house remarkable only for the armed men stationed outside.

Meshaal has good reason to be wary. In 1997 Israeli agents in Jordan poisoned him within an inch of his life. Now he sleeps in a different location every night and fully expects the Israelis to come calling again.

For now though he remains a key player in the unfolding internal Palestinian conflict between the hardliners in Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement.

Meshaal was in jovial mood, over Arabic pastries and sweet tea he told me he saw no reason for Hamas to take any actions to wreck the Annapolis peace talks.

Meshaal was in jovial mood, over Arabic pastries and sweet tea he told me he saw no reason for Hamas to take any actions to wreck the Annapolis peace talks.

'They are doomed already' he said with a smile.

So the lesson of my return to Syria was simple: if you want to find signs of change don't talk politics.

Instead focus on signs of inward investment, the increased flow of foreign tourists - including some intrepid entrepreneurs who are buying up property in the old city - and the steady cultural inroads being made by the internet and satellite TV.

But when the talk comes back to politics so Damascenes still find themselves hemmed in by two forces as inescapable as the haze which hangs over the city: Assad and Israel.


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